A few weeks ago my wife and I were invited to dinner and drinks at an acquaintance’s house (you know you’re finally a real adult when you start listing people as ‘acquaintances’) in Kiso-machi.
Kiso-machi is a small town even deeper into Kiso Valley country – about a forty minute’s drive north of Nagiso, beyond our neighboring town (and Shelbyville-esque deeply hated rival) Okuwa-mura. It’s much like Nagiso, only double the size, with a whopping 10,000 people, similarly spread out in tiny communities throughout the endless mountains of the Kiso valley.
Now, my wife and I have been in something of a self-imposed Covid-19 lockdown for the past few months (actually over one year), but with the much reduced threat of infection here in Japan (and especially here in the countryside), we decided to say yes to this cozy dinner in the mountains. Lord knows we need the chance to practice our long-neglected human conversation skills.
It was a lovely time, with a a few friends of friends (acquaintances of acquaintances?) dropping in and out throughout the evening, and a delicious, admittedly Covid-baiting vegan potluck, which led to at least five separate conversations where I had to try and explain what exactly the hell nutritional yeast is.
Long story short, we were warmly welcomed into this community of extremely delightful hippies, each of whom seemed to practice some unique and impressive form of craftsmanship – an organic farmer and maker of rice straw artwork; a ceramics designer who built his own traditional kiln; and a handful of woodworkers and carpenters who all moved from far and wide to the Kiso valley to work with its famously high-quality wood.
One of these carpenters – we’ll call him Tree Guy – later invited me to spend the day helping him and a couple of his friends cut down some trees on his property. Excited about the prospect of learning how to use a chainsaw, and keen to prove my worth as something other than the computer gremlin I know deep down I really am, I said yes.
And so it was that I woke up early on a freezing cold February morning and drove up north to the town of Agematsu (located between Kiso-machi and the ever hated Okuwa-mura) to chainsaw some trees to death with three of my newest acquaintances.
Why cut the trees down, though? Well, Tree Guy‘s newly acquired hand-built wooden house (which he didn’t buy – he just sort of was given it for free (I swear, no one in this bloody valley has a simple backstory)), doesn’t get much sunlight, on account of all the trees in the way, so he wanted to thin out their numbers. As well as this, he wanted to use some of the best wood for woodworking, and the rest as firewood. One of the other guys there was also a carpenter, and the other – the aforementioned ceramics maker – was just in it for the free firewood.
As the proud owner of no wood-burning stove myself, I went home with nothing but a 101 understanding of chainsaws, some moderate lower back pain, and the idea for this blog post.
The day started with a crash course on how to use a chainsaw. Fuel goes here. Lubricant oil goes here. Hand goes here. Hand does not go here. Maintain a good centre of gravity. Don’t chainsaw people, or trees directly above people. And so on.
Unstated, but implied in all this was classic rural wisdom like ‘light canvas shoes are appropriate safety equipment’, and ‘goggles are for losers’, which seemed unconventional, but I am a newbie after all.
As soon as I turned on the chainsaw and chainsawed my first bit of wood (they didn’t actually let me cut down any trees myself – they’re not idiots, after all) I felt a kind of primal thrill rise within me, like a Cro-Magnon hunter spearing a boar, or a middle class father operating an outdoor grill. This is what I was born for. I always knew I was born for something bigger – turns out I was born for cutting bit of wood into progressively smaller bits of wood.
Almost immediately I was admonished – for chainsawing the wrong kind of wood: “We’ll use the red pine for woodworking, so please don’t touch it. But the cypress is only good for firewood, so you can go ahead and cut that up.”
I looked back and forth between the two logs he was pointing to. Red pine and cypress. Cypress and red pine. He may as well have told me to only chainsaw the trees taller than they are old, or to avoid chainsawing the ones that sparked in him cherished memories of childhood. In other words: I am a computer gremlin, and I do not know how to distinguish different types of trees.
I looked back at him, and gave him the confident nod of a man listening to the advice of the workers fixing his boiler. Because as a computer gremlin, not only do I not know how to distinguish different types of trees, I also do not know how to ask for help without feeling an overwhelming sense of shame (that may well be clinical anxiety, though, I’m not sure).
I somehow managed it, though. And before long it was time for lunch. Tree Guy had made us a pretty delicious mix of curry and stew, which we ate on his roof, while looking out over the distant forests and the white peaks of the mountains beyond.
It was then that I was hit by that feeling I sometimes get nowadays: how is this my life? Not in a negative way, not at all. And not in a smug ‘my life’s much better than all those sheeple’ way either. More like: ‘I would never in a million years have imagined I’d end up here’.
Not in my humble youth, as I swept chimneys in south London – not even a few years ago, as I dodged actionably adolescent-looking maid cafe promoters in central Nagoya, would I have for a moment thought I’d end up here, eating lunch on a roof in the Kiso Valley, 800+ metres above sea level, conversing in distinctly unstilted Japanese, and getting ready to chainsaw some more wood.
At one point they cut down an absolutely massive tree, and I was sure that it would somehow twist 90 degrees round a sheer corner to crush my car specifically (luckily it decided to obey the laws of physics this time). You can see that above.
After that, the day went on much as it had started. I watched as the bigger boys cut down some trees. I unsubtly shadowed one of them around, only daring to cut up logs I’d already seen him working on, for fear of ruining more priceless red pine. Eventually we had felled enough wood, and so the process of hauling it all halfway back up the hill for storage began.
After that, there was nothing left to do but drive home, have a bath, and proceed to tell my wife how tired I was every twenty minutes for the next two or three days.
Like I said, I don’t have a wood-burning stove just yet, so I didn’t take any of the free wood. But I came away from it feeling pretty satisfied nonetheless – the ache in my lower back a sign of the growth of my practical experience; the sawdust lining the entirety of my respiratory tract a symbol of my courage.
The courage to try new things and meet new people. To say yes to things that scare me – whether because of anxiety about language (largely solved now), social anxiety (not solved yet lol), anxiety about accidentally chainsawing my own head off (truly man’s greatest fear), or just plain old anxiety anxiety. The courage to move across the world, then across the country to somewhere completely new.
To sit on a rooftop looking out on the Kiso valley, chatting with what are basically strangers in an entirely different language, and spend the day chainsawing trees to death when most of the time all I feel up for is hunching in front of a computer, far away from the outside world.
Personal growth. You’ve gotta love it.
Still no idea how to tell apart red pine and cypress, though. Everyone has limits.